Seemingly small decisions thatbrokers make early in their careers often influence largerdecisions they will need to make later. (Illustration: FayeRogers)

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Productive companies continually evaluate strategies, make necessary adjustments and plan forthe future. Successful brokers do exactly the same, managing their careers just as they would theirbusinesses.

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“They say to begin with the end in mind,” says Suzy Johnson,president and senior employee benefit specialist with EmployeeBenefit Advisors of the Carolinas in Charlotte. “I have alwaysenvisioned achievements and worked toward them. I have a vision ofbeing successful in my work while helping lots of people and, atthe same time, creating financial security for myself and myfamily. That early vision and planning allows me to be open to amultitude of options regarding the transition of the business whenI am ready.”

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Author Stephen Covey popularized the phrase “begin with the endin mind” in his best-selling book “The 7 Habits of HighlySuccessful People.” This phrase sums up how brokers shoulddetermine where they want to be professionally and personally atthe end of their careers and then work proactively to reach theirobjectives.

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Related: The 2018 Broker of the Year finalists share theirkeys to success

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Jim King, owner and wealth manager with Balasa Dinverno FoltzLLC in Chicago, recommends this focused approach at every stage ofa broker's career. “The important thing is to have a vision and aplan,” he says. “The most successful people I know are driven byvision and goals as they progress through their careers.”

In the beginning

King provides financial planning and wealth-management services,primarily in clients' later career stages. He understands thatseemingly small decisions that brokers make early in the processoften influence larger decisions they will need to make later. Themost basic decision is whether to enter the profession in the firstplace.

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“The biggest challenge for agencies is finding young talent,” King says. “In the pastyear, I have talked with more than 200 owners throughout thecountry. Their biggest challenges are growth, people andtechnology—and people and growth go hand in hand. A lot ofopportunities are out there from a career-cycle standpoint forsomeone entering this space.”

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He recalls a conversation at this spring's BenefitsPRO Broker Expo. “One lady said, 'likemost of us, I never wanted to have a career in insurance butstumbled into it by accident. Not many people leave college andsay, “I want to sell insurance.” It's not the sexiest professionand often not looked upon as a great career, although it really isan awesome profession to be in.'”

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The woman recalled talking with her nephew, a pre-med studentand telling him, “You're smart, hardworking and good atcommunicating with others. You should sell insurance.” He looked ather like she was crazy.

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Because of the haphazard entries into the industry that themajority of brokers experience, many join the profession without aclear idea of how their career might unfold or the opportunitiesthat may present themselves along the way.

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Johnson's career illustrates the many twists and turns that canhappen along the path to success. She began in 1982 as a groupinsurance representative for John Hancock, moved to benefitsconsulting and then sold self-funded third-party administratorservices. She later started an employee benefits brokerage for alife insurance company, which she eventually purchased and grewinto her current company.

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“In 2007, the business had 320 commission groups with an averagesize of 20 employees,” Johnson says. “Today, we have 160 clientsaveraging 40 employees, with 80 percent of our revenue coming fromfees. Last year, our agency brought in several new clients withmore than 300 employees, and we are focused on companies with 100employees or more.”

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She encourages newer brokers to never stop learning, becomeinvolved in industry associations and seek out mentors. “I havebeen deeply involved in NAHU and the International Society ofCertified Employee Benefit Specialists my entire career,” Johnsonsays. “Education and designations are meaningful to me, becausethey show a commitment to getting better.”

Follow the leaders

Susan Rider with Gregory & Appel in Indianapolis creditsseveral mentors for pointing her career in the right direction. Shestarted as an account manager 14 years ago and is now a consultanton employee benefits and human capital management.

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“Tom Harte was my formal mentor though the NAHU program,” shesays. “A few years back, I was the chairwoman of the NAHU taskforce now known as Vanguard. During my years on that committee, wecreated a formal mentoring program for new and young agents.Mentoring is a passion of mine, probably because of the impact mymentors in the industry have had on my career path.”

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Employers can also play a key role in developing young brokers, King says. “Early inyour career, find an employer that focuses on developing talent andinvesting in its people. Instead of wanting you to go out and sellright away, they should focus on helping you learn your craft.Agencies that are successful and grow their organization focus onbasic education and developing their talent pool.”

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Rider has a few pieces of advice for anyone entering theprofession:

  • Remain authentic, be humble and inspire others. Titles don'tmatter; relationships matter.
  • Make the right choices; the ethical ones, the hard ones. Theypay off in the long term.
  • Create your own brand, know your “why” and be a role model forothers.

Employers and employees also need to remember that the happiestand most successful brokers over the long haul are those whomaintain a healthy work-life balance. “Focus and work hard, butremember to take time off and seize opportunities as they arise,”Johnson says. “For instance, if there is something you have theopportunity to do, such as an adventurous trip somewhere, plan forit, commit and do it. When you view your work as part of yourlife's purpose, there is always time for trips and relaxationcreated by the hard work you've done.”

Stuck in the middle

The critical decisions to be made early and late in a career areusually easy to recognize. It's the middle years, those thataccount for the majority of work life, where it can be easy tobecome focused on day-to-day activities and lose sight of thebigger picture.

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“Mid-career is when complacency can set in,” King says. “Whenyou have grown your book, you almost feel stuck in the sameposition. The longer you are there and the larger your book, theharder it can be to move and be confident your clients will go withyou. It may be time to evaluate your skill set and look at thepeers in your organization.”

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High-performance brokers may face the tough decision of whetherto remain in a comfortable position, jump to a new company that mayoffer greater opportunities (and possibly risks), or even to starttheir own agency. Johnson wrestled with these issues in her owncareer. “In the early years, the business was very lucrative andgrew only in a positive trajectory,” she says. “However, over thepast seven years, there has been much more volatility in earningsand creating growth, so I have had to become much more focused onthis.”

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Throughout the process, she has had to weigh tempting offers topurchase the business against her own passion. “I amentrepreneurial and know the reason I bought the company was toremain independent, nimble and in charge of my own destiny,” shesays. “I would not do well for any long period of time working forsomebody else.”

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When a business or career is running smoothly, it's easy toassume that outside advice is no longer as important. However, thismay be exactly the time to seek wise counsel.

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“Because I have been approached to sell the business on numerous occasions, Ithought it would be good to hire an outside consultant to help uswrite a business plan for transition in the future,” Johnson says.“This was a very positive experience, because it promptedconversations internally with associates about what they want fortheir future in view of my own goals.”

The end is near

Succession planning is one of the biggest challenges that ownersface, both professionally and personally. “Putting in place asuccession plan is paramount to building a high-functioning,cohesive team,” says Michael Futterman, director of Janus HendersonLabs.

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As much as brokers may look forward to selling their businessand retiring, winding down a career is seldom simple. In a recentsurvey, the Financial Planning Association in Denver identifiedthree potential stumbling blocks that often arise for owners duringsuccession planning:

  • Worrying that the business will not be as successful if theyare not there (67 percent).
  • Having a hard time thinking about moving on from the business(63 percent).
  • Not being sure they personally are ready for succession (61percent).

“You can't wait until you are 63 if you want to retire at age65,” King says. “You need to start at least 10 years earlier. Evenin your 40s, you want to have a vision of what the end will looklike. If you plan to sell your business 10 years from now, what hasto happen for you to feel successful and fulfilled in yourlife?”

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To help his clients get started, King challenges them with thesequestions:

  • Why would I sell my agency?
  • How much longer do I plan on working?
  • Can I work for someone else?
  • What does my life look like 10 years from today in a perfectworld?

Johnson has given these questions a great deal of thought. “Ianticipate working another five to six years,” she says. “I don'tknow exactly when and how our transition will occur; however, Ihave a good idea of what is possible and what EBITDA can beexpected, as well as metrics we need to reach to assure a smoothand fruitful transition for all on our team for the future.”

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It's easy to focus solely on the bottom line when making adecision, but King points to three often-overlooked factors whenselling an agency:

  • Culture. “Cultural alignment is critical for owners looking tomaximize the earn-out after the sale,” King says. If the newleadership doesn't align, clients and employees aren't going tostick around.
  • Time horizon. Transitioning clients and staff to a new agencydoesn't happen overnight, King says. “At a time when owners arepreparing to work less, they will need to work more to ensure asmooth transition.”
  • Legacy. “One can put a dollar value on the agency, but theycannot put a value on the owner's legacy that is often lost in asales transaction,” King says. Owners may benefit by transitioningnot just their clients and staff to new ownership, but their ownstory, as well, allowing the former-owner to live on after they'regone.

“Work is much more rewarding if you can share successes withothers and find motivation among others,” Johnson says. “I havebrought in two very competent professionals, Rachel Miner and ChrisRoss, and both will receive 10 percent of the business uponreaching a common goal that we all believe is very achievable.Plus, I have a very committed, smart, hard-working director ofoperations, Jennifer Weston, who will share in some equity when thegoal is attained. My hope is that my vision, drive and businesssense will help them in a way my mentors and business coaches havehelped me.”

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